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Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead's weapon against Trump and anti-abortion laws: laughter

“I just want to make America something that ain't that dude's vision.”

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Major Opinions On Abortion And Gun Rights
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: Texas abortion provider Amy Hagstrom-Miller looks on as Nancy Northup, President of The Center for Reproductive Rights speaks to the media outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Lizz Winstead is a comedian, writer, and co-creator of The Daily Show. In 2012, she helped found Lady Parts Justice, a group that uses comedy and digital media to, in the words of its mission statement, “sound an alarm about the terrifying erosion of reproductive access so people will get off their asses and reclaim their rights.”

For the second consecutive year, Winstead and LPJ are holding an annual stage show in Washington, DC, called “Postcards From the Vag.” A blend of comedy and activism, the all-female show fuses standup with intimate stories from a diverse group of performers. This year the show is subtitled “Hilarious Stories From People Who Bleed From Their Wherevers,” and (naturally) Donald Trump is the focus.

I spoke with Winstead on Wednesday about her new show, her political activism, and the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing: Apart from the delightful reference to Donald Trump's seedy attack on Megyn Kelly, what's the show about?

Lizz Winstead: The show is an attempt to play with broad-stroke ideas and promises that have come from Trump and Trump surrogates. Since I'm probably the person who does the most political satire, I'm going to talk about the ironies of Trump's ideas, and each performer will either do standup or tell a personal story about how counterintuitive and fucking crazy they are.

People have material across the board, whether it's the experience of being a woman who is a Palestinian immigrant or a black woman or a queer black woman or just a mom trying to raise two kids alone. So we have a wide range of perspectives from comedians and storytellers who are responding to my calling out of Trump's thoughts and ideas.

SI: On the one hand, the show sounds like an explosion of feminist badassery. On the other hand, my imaginary inner alt-right activist worries about the lack of male representation on the stage. What say you?

LW: I would say anywhere you walk on that block you'll find plenty of male representation. Hey, turn on C-SPAN and don't go out — plenty of male representation there. You could walk into any sitcom writing room — plenty of male representation there. There are plenty of places where dudes are thoroughly represented.

At our show last year, this guy from The Federalist, a conservative website, snuck in and thought he could stealthily write about the show. It was just amazing. First of all, he paid on a Friday night to go shit on women, which is impossibly lame, and then he tried to write a revisionist history of the night.

So we just kept shitting on the guy on Twitter, posting photographs of things that were the opposite of what he wrote about. It was a blast. I'm sure we'll get more of that this year. People like that love to disprove the notion that women are actually funny. It's a big thing they do, apparently.

SI: You're promoting the show as a response to the politicians declaring war on reproductive rights. Can you say a bit more about that?

LW: I think there's not a lot of stories about this complete erosion that's happening on the national front, because most of it is coming out of state legislatures. So Lady Parts Justice was founded so that we could raise the level of engagement on how this shit works and where these laws are being advanced.

Part of the reason we're here is that people often don't understand civics or that voting laws, LGBTQ laws, reproductive laws, and gun laws come out of state legislatures. And city councils have a lot to do with it. So I think this is a way for us to talk about all of this stuff that's coming down the pike. If a creepy guy gets elected to Congress in Missoula, Montana, that guy gets to vote on your junk, and if you're not aware of that, you need to be prepared to step up and help us raise awareness and get people to the polls.

Vulture Festival Presents Sarah Silverman & Friends
Comedian Lizz Winstead performs onstage during Vulture Festival.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Vulture Festival

SI: I've always hated the pro-choice/pro-life distinction. Language structures how we think about the world, and so the terms we use matter. There's nothing anti-life about protecting a woman's right to autonomy over her own body. But the debate is such that to be pro-choice implies that one is anti-life.

LW: Part of what inspired me to spend a good portion of my life combining my comedy and my activism was my motivation to reclaim some of the narrative. We've allowed the right to dictate the terms in a lot of ways. We just absorbed it. As a practical matter, and this is a bummer, but it's true.

If you're writing a piece about your abortion activism, using the word abortion over and over again doesn't read well. You're always looking for another term. When I find myself using the word "pro-choice," it's when I have to write a story where I know I'm going to have to say "abortion rights" or "abortion rights activist."

I refer to myself as pro-abortion, and I feel like there's nothing wrong with that. I refuse to acquiesce to the demonization and the loaded language. In fact, I got the Google plug-in that automatically changes the word "pro-life" to "anti-choice" whenever it comes up. It's a small thing, but language matters, as you said.

SI: What do you make of this election, and of Trump in particular?

LW: I just want to make America something that ain't that dude's vision. I don't even know what the hell "Make America Great Again" means. I've watched this play out from the beginning. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter. Now I'm a Hillary Clinton supporter. I feel like the amount of airtime that Trump is taking up, even in relation to the general election, is kind of insane. How the hell is he allowed to get away with saying Hillary Clinton doesn't have a child care plan?

Because I'm so concerned about abortion access and because so much of that is happening at the state level, I'm trying desperately to elevate the dialogue toward that, because there's so much talk about the general and nothing else.

Russ Feingold could win the Senate seat in Wisconsin — that's a big deal. Why are we not talking about Pat Toomey, the senator from Pennsylvania? Why are we not talking about North Carolina's governor, who is probably going to lose? There's so much more happening, and that's what we want to talk about. That's why we're doing this massive awards show called The Golden Probes, which is nominating the best of the worst in terms of reproductive rights.

SI: How terrified are you of a Trump presidency?

LW: Probably as terrified as everybody. I'm more terrified of the fact that if there's a Trump presidency, it means we have a landfill of deplorables, not a basket of deplorables. If people are so uneducated that they can believe the insanities coming out of Trump's mouth, I don't know what to do.

To hear this different take on what humanity is, to hear someone giving permission to unabashedly hate, is deflating. I get in Twitter fights constantly with a woman who's like, "Donald Trump's not a racist, I am, but he's as close as I'm gonna get." I'm like, "Holy fuck, that's a thing you just wrote." I know these people exist, and perhaps it's good to take the pulse and see where our morality is, but this is the part that makes me the saddest, and we have Donald Trump to thank for it.

SI: What do you think of the media's treatment of Hillary Clinton in this campaign?

LW: I don't think the media is ever particularly fair to a point of view that involves nuance. I launched a comedy show in 1996 because of the media’s lack of nuance. I've built a career on paying attention and being a media observer, and I watch constantly the unending desire to show two sides, even if it's total bullshit. And I've seen one moderator after another who does not have enough of a command of the facts to ask follow-up questions. This has been an epidemic that has just gotten worse with more media.

As for Clinton, there have always been things — legitimate things — you could question her about. But that's not what we cover. Instead, it's a constant rehashing of sound-bite-y bullshit. This has always been a pet peeve of mine, nitpicking at stuff that's not real. I just feel like smart people are not running the media, and so we're getting supposed news networks that are competing for ad dollars with Dancing With the Stars and The Voice.

SI: I can't let you go without asking about The Daily Show, which you helped create. What do you make of the new format and host? I feel like Trevor Noah stepped into an impossible position. He's incredibly sharp and funny, but how the hell do you follow Jon Stewart?

LW: I think you just answered your own question. To take over a show in the shoes of somebody who cemented this profound space in popular culture, political discourse, and satire is incredibly difficult, particularly for someone who's 18 years younger than Stewart, who by virtue of his age and youth alone doesn't have the historical gravitas.

I think Noah is really great, and he's in a show that people love, and so people are always going to be mean and catty and judgmental. But I also think he's appealing to a new group of people and the show is transitioning into a new thing.

Correction: An earlier version of this interview misidentified the organization that the man who wrote about last year's Postcards from the Vag is affiliated with. We regret the error.

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